Marc Hauser – Are We Engaged In Meta-Meta-Ethics Here?

Descriptive Ethics: How people behave, and what they believe about morally.

Normative Ethics: What are the moral codes we live by? How do we resolve moral problems?

Meta-Ethics: What is ethics all about? Where do we get our moral codes from?

Meta-Meta-Ethics?: What can we understand about ethics when a Harvard professor who has engaged in the study of the evolutionary origins of ethics is found to have committed misconduct in his research into non-human primate behaviour? What does this say about his work on the origins of morality if we can’t be sure his misconduct does not extend to his work on morality? Do you have to understand ethics and abide by ethical standards when studying ethics in order to be sure you do actually understand ethics? Would it be acceptable for a moral nihilist to ‘cheat’ on his research into moral nihilism, and would he actually be cheating? I blame Rationalism for getting us into this sort of mess.

The results are out, as reported in the Boston Globe: Former Harvard professor Marc Hauser fabricated, manipulated data, US says. (Report here).

Here’s Hauser in a POI podcast about his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

This case has been going on for a while and now the details are out in the report. The report covers some very specific research on non-human primate cognition, which does not particularly address the question of the origins of morality. And, of course, there is no suggestion that any of the collaborators or other researchers investigating the origins of morals have done anything wrong. It doesn’t even address Hauser’s specific contribution to the work on the origins or morality. But it does leave a lot of suspicion hanging there. It does leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

Science isn’t infallible, because it is carried out by fallible humans; and though the methodologies of science are intended to compensate for our fallibilities they too are implemented by fallible humans. Our fallibility seems inescapable. I guess Harvard will want to bury this as soon as possible; and without evidence to suggest further problems with his work I don’t suppose any public enquiry will look any deeper.

There are genuine and inherent difficulties associated with the psych sciences. This only makes matters more difficult, for other researchers and us onlookers.

 

The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.

My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will

While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’

So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet. But several points of contention remain, as I see it, as an incompatibilist. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.

1) Language and Level

A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.

It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.

2) Property Dualism (PD)

This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:

“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.

Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”

This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.

Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:

(i) I (the property dualist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.

(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.

Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.

3) Fear of Consequences

Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.

“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”

Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.

Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .

Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.

4) Qualia

Qualia appears to be a made-up concept used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.

This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”

The idea that this cannot be answered, the incredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.

My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.

Any animal brain senses its environment, and also senses its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.

From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses: adaptive programming.

Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.

When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).

So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat

What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.

I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lower level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.

5) ‘I’

Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”

Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:

  • “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
  • “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
  • “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
  • “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.

This one attributed to Dennett here:

  • “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”

My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.

This is how I see it: we are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism. Either that or the compatibilists simply can’t get their own brains around their own understanding of free will.

Summary

Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough, such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.

Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.

It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.

What the Tweet?

Newenglanbod responded to Jerry Coynes notice that Richard Dawkins has started tweeting:

“I still refuse to get a Twitter account. Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play. I also do not wish to be a ‘groupie’ who follows the sound byte pronouncements of other people and especially the often malformed thoughts of their followers.”

But then we get this from newenglandbob, on a post that was about Sam Harris on Free Will: “I prefer the egg rolls to the spring rolls. Some Vietnamese Pho(ph? bò)if they have it.” [87 characters]

And this, on a post about Elliot Sober’s views: Or potato chips. They also have Wavy to help during the wave function. [70 characters]“

Or this pithy contribution to a post about Sam Harris: “Heh heh.” [8 - not counting smiley emoticon]

To be fair, newenglandbod does contribute more interesting stuff than these examples. My point here is not that these particular comments are inane in any way (they seem off topic to the main post, but they are in context as responses to other comments), just that they seem to contradict the statement “Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play”.

Okay, if twitter is so great, what’s so great about it?

As Jerry pointed out, you can use it to broadcast your own blog posts.

Twitter is really useful for following people who tweet but don’t provide feeds to their web sites or blogs, so otherwise I wouldn’t pick up their posts so regularly, say with a news reader.

The whole point of the 140 character limit is to avoid verbose people (guilty) hogging the space. I can scan tons of tweets really quickly, and many (most if you follow the right people) use twitter to link to their posts or other interesting stuff when you want greater detail. The limit is an aid. And for those adicted to longer tweets there are other tools that will take your longer tweet and condense it for presentation on twitter: http://longertweets.com/

And, the 140 limit makes it easy to read on a smart phone, where you can choose to open up links for a more detailed read if you want to.

One of the best features is the retweet, where you simply echo to your followers the tweet of someone you follow. When someone retweets a tweet from someone they follow and that I don’t, I sometimes find new interesting threads to start following.

And retweets are one of the means by which news travels fast on the web. I think it’s hard to deny the contribution of twitter to social change. The Arab spring being a prime example. Try this activist. Take a look at the number of retweets that link to others. This is how they communicate.

And all the news agencies and radio and TV broadcasters have several twitter accounts where you can pick and choose what you’re intersted in: https://twitter.com/guardianscience

I also follow several tweets related to my work, which makes keeping track of events a lot easier.

You can still use twitter as a source without having an account. There are some tools out there, such as Meet The Tweet. Or, if you only follow one or two you only need their twitter name: https://twitter.com/Evolutionistrue.

I get it that there are millions of inane tweets out their keeping you up to date on how much navel fluff they’ve collected today, how much pain they are sufferring at the hands of an unrequited love, or how Jesus will save you. Sometimes even the people worth following can resort to uninteresting stuff. Stephen Fry is a prime example. He’s an interesting guy; love much of his TV and radio work; have picked up many interesting links from his tweets. But sometimes I’m not so interested…

There’s no escaping the fact. I’m eating a cherry.”

So, this is Margate, is it? Certainly plenty of fish and chip shops.”

… though no doubt many of his followers are.

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. It might be popular because it works. Trying it, making your mind up based on that, and then deciding to quit, is all fair stuff. If you’re rejecting tools because of what you suppose them to be, because the notion of what they are, or who uses them, or how popularist they are, offends your rationality, then perhaps you’re not assessing it rationally yourself.


An Experiment

1) Sign up to twitter. You can always close the account after the experiment. You don’t have to write any tweets yourself. In this experiment just use it as a source.

2) Enter each of the following into the search box, hit search and click the ‘Follow’ button. These are just for starters. They are some of the more regular sources that link to articles on science, philosophy and news. Sometimes the authors will link to their own blog posts – you get your blog to automatically post on twitter, so no big deal there.

@sciam, @microphilosophy, @Neurosciencenw, @TelegraphSci, @JandMo, @Neurophilosophy, @tedtalks, @neuroblogs, @TheBrainScience, @docartemis, @edyong209, @nytimes, @Stanford, @PhysicsWorld, @newscientist, @guardianscience, @philosophybites, @NewHumanist, @BBCNews, @Evolutionistrue, @neuropsychblog, @MarcusduSautoy, @BHAhumanists, @bloggingheads, @BoraZ

I’ve left off lots of people associated with my work that won’t be of interest to you. I also follow some celebs: @seanmcarroll, @timminchin, @BadAstronomer, @neiltyson, @SamHarrisOrg, @bengoldacre. Some celebs I don’t follow (honestly): pop-stars

3) As you read your own sources, from news feeds or favourite blogs, start to click on the twotter link so that you follow them too. My list is just a starterlist for you. Develop your own interests. You’ll soon figure out who is worth following. Some people post infrequently, and maybe post interesting stuff even less frequently. They are OK to leave as followed, since they won’t fill up your stream too much.

The ones you may want to stop following are those that tweet very often – like 10+ times a day, but mostly consisting of useless 140 char opinion. Yes, these are the ones that most critics of twitter are objecting too, along with the millions of teens tweeting on the attractiveness of their current idols. Don’t follow them and you won’t see them.

4) Try this for a month. Open twitter every day or so and scroll down and scan down. I just scanned 20 hours of tweets I follow in about three minutes, and I follow 197 people. Of course if I follow a link and read the article I take mroe time. But, hey, what are you doing reading this anyway? If you’ve posted a criticism of twitter on some blog of online news article then you do actually find some stuff on the net worth reading. Now you are using twitter as one more tool to follow your interests, efficiently.

Extension to Experiment

I find some days there are too many interesting things to read up on, but some I really don’t want to lose track of. I don’t find twitter’s favourites tool useful. Instead I use Evernote, plus Evernote clipper, an extension to Google Chrome (and other browsers) which allows me to quickly save an interesting web page url to an Evernote note. I must have hundreds of such quickly saved links that I’ll never get round to reading. But in there are some gems that I vaguely remember seeing but can’t trace again by a google search. After a quick search of my Evernote account I’ve been able to get back to the article, often months later.

If you don’t like Evernote, try Deliscious, or one of the many other means of keeping track of links. These tools, and twitter, ensure that if I must waste much of my time on the internet, at least I’m wasting it on interesting stuff.

Psychology – The Hard Science

An LA Times article reports on Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s complaint that psychologists are badly done to by members of the ‘hard’ sciences.

Ironically it’s psychology that’s the ‘hard’ science, in the sense of most difficult do, because of the complexity of the subjects.

Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.

Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.

Because of this and other difficulties expressed in the above article and the original it does raise another problem that compounds matters: it’s easy for cooks and crooks to make up false and misleading crap and to hide behind the smoke screen thrown up by the genuine difficulties the discipline faces.

An example being Robert Lanza. You’d be better listening to Mario Lanza than this cook.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

The Giant’s Balls-up

I have seen reports that the National Trust is lending support to Young Earth Creationist (YEC) views on the formation of the Giants Causeway (GC). Here, for example.

(h/t JC)

I have to say that I’m very disappointed in the way the audio transcript is unclear about the NT’s position and does give the impression that it lends credibility to the YEC view. And the NT response to media enquires is no better:

“We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that some people hold views today which are different from mainstream science.”

That is not the case, based on the transcript. It would be a legitimate point to say that explicitly, that is, to say that YEC have used the GC and other geological formations to support their views, but that this conflicts directly with the science. But that is not what the transcript expresses:

Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant’s Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

There is no such debate, only unsupported claims by YEC. They may think there is a debate, but the science demonstrates there is nothing to debate. And it would be a misrepresentation of science to liken these YEC claims to the legitimate debate within science about the precise age and cause of the formation.

How does it compare, for example, with the NT’s treatment of other myths? In how many audio visual presentations are local myths presented as serious matters of debate, rather than just myth? Is there serious debate on the matter of the Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) building the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner? Both this and the YEC claims are on equal footing – i.e. myths.

The NT does indeed appear give the Fionn some weight, here: Giant’s Causeway; but in this case the it is presented tongue in cheek so clearly, as are many fabulous Irish myths, that there is no misunderstanding – and, no religious fundamentalism striving to make political points, something I’d have thought Ireland had seen enough of.

I’d be interested to know what will be done about this at the site. I think the NT has a duty to represent the history of its properties in the most accurate manner. Where ancient myth has played a significant role in a location’s history then it is right and proper to describe such a myth. Where a religious or political debate has used a location, then it is reasonable that this fact should be included in a presentation.

But there is a distinction between the fact of the religous or political debate, and the fact of the matter supposedly being debated. In this case, one fact is that YEC have used the causeway in the promotion of their claims. A quite different fact is the age and cause of the rock formation. The NT should not allow religous or political pressure groups to influence NT presentations as it is a very dangerous precedent. There’s already abundant bollocks believed in Ireland as it is. The NT doesn’t need to add to it.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is a silly rendition of a fairy tale. But let’s go with the fantasy. The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any hisorical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the ressurection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, gobblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.


Just to throw a spanner into the mix, note the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence and by making up crap, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes embarrassingly ridiculous, FFS!

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown.

The Primacy of Thought

A few recent blog posts have raised the issue of the primacy of thought, particularly these two:

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity quotes James East in this post.

Mike D at The A-Unicornist on this post.

The problem for me with theism, and some philosophy, is the primacy given to the mind and a failure to appreciate how humans, and all animals, are inherently constrained by our senses: Thought v Experience.

The trouble with ‘thinking’ is that by the time we humans started to do it reasonably well a lot of evolutionary water had passed under the bridge, but we had no clue about our sensory non-thinking heritage, so our point of view was skewed. It’s as if we came into the world as a fully formed thinking entities or souls, that just happened to reside in a corporeal body. The mental awakening of an individual human as they grow from childhood to adulthood is also a metaphor for the awakening of the species. So, quite naturally I think, we discover we can think and presume this is our greatest capacity, and not knowing its limitations we come to think the mind has some powerful ability to discover knowledge all on its own. Our very familiar relationship with our own minds, our subjective experience, is so overwhelming that it clouds our view so that we see it as the be-all and end-all of knowledge acquisition. This is the source of our conviction to the primacy of thought.

Here’s James East expressing this very experience (as quoted by John Loftus. My emphasis):

I was a Christian for nearly 20 years – starting as a young teenager, after being raised in a “very Christian” family. By the time I was able to think for myself, I basically believed everything already, so it was only natural to accept the salvation that was on offer when it finally clicked.

And here’s Articulet’s reply (my emphasis again):

Yes – boy can I relate! And don’t feel ashamed for falling for Christianity – probably most of your favorite people have – and most of the smartest people you know. But these are the memes that have survived through time.

In the extreme we have characters like Alvin Plantinga who suppose, for no good reason I can see beyond the persistence of ‘memes’, that we have mental capacities that are reliable routes to truth, when really we have no idea what ‘truth’ is.

Science has a limited practical interpretation of ‘truth’, which basically is the degree of correspondence between our various methods of discovery – so even in that sense ‘truth’ is not the all-or-nothing truth of logic. Epistemology is a mess because it is supposed that there is some real achievable certain ‘truth’ to be found, some absolute certainty out there waiting for us to discover, perhaps in the mind of God, that imaginary essence of truth itself, by virtue, maybe, of our sensus divinitatis.

I remain surprised that some otherwise bright people cannot grasp the link between our acknowledged fictions, and cannot recognise religious thinking for what it is: imagination allowed to run free and unconstrained by the senses.

Our thinking ability is more limited than we tend to think. Some of our recent ancestors will have had an even more limited capacity to think (and we see that in many of our existent cousins); and distant ancestors would have had no nervous system at all. But all of them, right back to the simplest celled organisms, have had a sensory interface with the world, even if it’s a simple chemical boundary. We are still, biologically and evolutionarily, sensory beings. Our evolutionary upgrade, a thinking brain, is an enhancement I’m sure; but a recent one that we are still learning to use. But it is useless in its own right, when acting alone. Try growing a brain in a child deprived entirely of senses and see what happens. Empiricism rules: we are sensory beings with an added capacity to analyse what we sense, to recognise patterns, to plan, to predict, to test again.

Common sense experience alone should be sufficient to tell us our senses and our reasoning are flawed. Our naturally developed faculty, our human knowledge acquisition system, our empirical nature, is only improved by the rigour of science. Even where science is still justifiably criticised as flawed, it’s still the best we can do. Science is, after all, practised by a flawed empirical system – the human being. All claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ have no foundation beyond wishful thinking. There’s only this one way of knowing, succinctly described as empiricism, but more rigorously practised as science. We can do it poorly or we can do it well, but that’s all we can do. We have no other faculties available to us that we know of.

We all acknowledge the human faculties of intuition and insight, but those that would put such faculties above science still don’t really get where these faculties fit in. Science uses them – that is scientists use them. They are part of the whole human knowledge acquisition system. But these faculties are also known to be suspect. The point being that science, the rigour of science, is the application of methodologies that weed out the useless intuitions and explore and expand on the good ones. In contrast to this approach the religious in particular, and some philosophers, are content to accept their intuitions without question, or at best only with questioning that also lies within the framework of their dogmas and schemas. They insist on this primacy of thought.

I feel that the failure to recognise this is why many theists and philosophers have been historically, and still are, so committed to the mind and the imagined capabilities attributed to it: reliable logical reasoning, freedom from bias and emotional drives to believe what we want to believe, a capacity to transcend the skull through thought alone, the ability to communicate with an imagined super being, the reliance on notions like faith. Until they grasp this view of what we are, our empirical nature, they will remain stuck thinking they have some pure, and possibly divine, route to knowledge through the mind alone.

Of course we could deny this empirical nature of ours, but to start down that road we would have to deny first the evolutionary theory that tells us this is how we got here from pre-thinking ancestors, and how this is the type of being we are. And once on that path, eventually, any significant contribution of the senses can be ditched. If the mind is really the route to knowledge, then the end of the line is solipsism. I can’t refute the solipsism hypothesis, but I’m content with not needing to.

BBC 4: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins

Thank you BBC for another good programme: Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins.

There are a couple of points that are well worth taking from the programme; points which Dawkins has been struggling to make clear since he had to suffer the backlash of The Selfish Gene.

Steven Rose, like many people who object to scientific truths, fail to understand the basic distinction between the descriptive role of science, and their own desires about what they want to be the case. This was also exemplified by the response of the political right of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s also characteristic of those who oppose the notion of illusory free-will on the basis of what they think are the moral implications. Raymond Tallis, a British Humanist, neurobiologist, and writer of many books opposing illusory free-will, and the animal nature of humans, is particularly prone to the this mistake. If science tells you something and you don’t like what it says about us humans, then tough luck. You don’t get to decide what is the case by what you want to be the case.

This isn’t a new enlightenment from Dawkins. Bertrand Russell made the very same point in his 1959 BBC interview (about 7:45 in). When asked about what he would like to leave for future generations he said:

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bare out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you would wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.

Dawkins also made clear in his programme that it is for humans to rebel against the selfish gene, and that it does not need to be a prescription for how we should live our lives. This too was expressed by Russell, in the following:

Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, if we are to live together and not die together. We must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on the planet.

There are many critics of Dawkins who will want to point to his New Atheist stridency as being in opposition to this sentiment; but they get that wrong too. Dawkins is only intolerantly opposed to the intolerance of religion and its unforgiving drive to persuade by foul means, of indoctrination, religious fanatical bullying, and denial of science for religious ends – the latter being precisely what Russell was objecting to in his first point. Though it’s true that Dawkins may have a personal distaste, and a strong position on the intellectual case, as made by Russell’s first point, it is also true that he is tolerant of our freedom to believe what we want, however dumb that may be. It’s odd that the very criticisms of the supposed stridency and intolerance of Dawkins are better directed to many of those that make them.